Joy Division will tear you apart, again

Shane Murray 13 October 2007

Some of it’s beautiful and some of it’s not meant to be. If you needed a pithy summation of either this film or Joy Division’s music itself, you couldn’t do much better than that.

Anton Corbijn’s biopic of Ian Curtis, the famously troubled lead singer of Joy Division, is a fantastic mirror for his subject and the music he made, at times beautiful, angry, cold and, as a whole, a touch on the depressing side.

It should be pointed out that this shouldn’t be seen as a bad point. Curtis’ story is a long way from those featured in the slew of Oscar-baiting Hollywood biopics.

The traditional story arch of poor boy makes music, makes it big, takes drugs, beats drugs, finds salvation in the arms of Reese Witherspoon, is entirely absent.

Instead, this is an intensely personal journey into the mind and soul of a profoundly conflicted individual, as seen through the eyes of his wife (whose book the film was based upon) and Corbijn himself, who was the band’s photographer.

It is probably for this reason that Curtis is not presented simply as the martyred young artist that many in the music press would like to see him as, but appears as a morally ambiguous figure who is certainly difficult to root for and is only sporadically sympathetic, noticeably at the tragic end of the film. For those who only know Curtis through his music, the cocky, Bowie-loving schoolboy who appears at the beginning of the film may be a bit of a surprise and it is the transformation and tragic downfall of the central character that makes this film such a masterpiece.

By the end of the first act Curtis is married to his schoolyard sweetheart, in “one of the most influential bands of all time”™ and is in a great position to escape dreary Macclesfield. How could he not be happy? Soon it becomes apparent that his youthful marriage has been a terrible mistake, with the birth of his first child only making things worse, and he is diagnosed with epilepsy. As Curtis wrestles with his growing coldness towards his wife and his feelings of guilt, Joy Division’s fortunes begin to take a turn for the better, even convincing Tony Wilson of Factory Records to sign their contract in his own blood. However, there is no avenue of salvation through music for Curtis, who simply pours his tortured mind into his lyrics and then becomes a living embodiment of angst on stage. Meanwhile, on tour he takes a Belgian lover and his soul descends into irretrievable self-conflict. It is in this last section of the film that Sam Riley, as Curtis, is most impressive, as he presents a compelling portrait of a man totally at war with himself. Riley, if there is any justice in this world, must be odds on to the win the Best Actor Oscar, as his Curtis is by far the most interesting, believable and complex character portrayed in cinema in the last…well, a long time.

The film also benefits from a strong supporting cast that makes Curtis’s actions so believable and understandable. The two female leads, Samantha Morton and Alexandra Maria Lara, as Curtis’ wife and lover respectively, in particular make it clear why he would be so utterly torn and confused. The other members of Joy Division, perhaps understandably, fade into the background a bit, as this is, above all, a film about Ian Curtis. Nonetheless, the concert sequences are some of the best scenes in the film. If you ever wondered why some people rave about Joy Division, watch this film and you shall understand. The performances are eerily realistic and the power of the songs is increased by the connections made with Curtis’ inner demons. While Joy Division on record occasionally sound as though they’ve been transmitted from some cold alien planet, in the film they are filled with emotional depth and a relentless energy.

In particular, it’s to the credit of the director that “Love Will Tear Us Apart” isn’t the most powerful song on here, with the “live” performance of “She’s Lost Control” being far more chilling, prophetic and affecting.

Key to all of these sequences is the fantastic look of the film, which may have something to do with the fact that the photographer was directing. The monochrome stylings of the film are intelligent, with the flat, grim portraits of Macclesfield contrasting well with the, er, higher contrast look of many of the sequences with the band.

The various moods of Curtis are captured brilliantly in the mood of every single scene and the entire film, apart from the very last scene, which is a little unnecessary, is stunningly shot. Control is well directed, a fantastic advert for music and a heart-breaking tale of love and nihilism. Sam Riley’s performance is at the heart of a compelling and unsettling view into the soul of a man struggling and failing to live with himself. It is the best film of the year so far. Put down this newspaper and go see it.

Shane Murray